But this past summer in rural Tanzania, that’s exactly what I did.
“Well, actually, ninautafiti ng’ombe,” I’d reply in my broken, basic Swahili – “I am studying the cows.” Nancy, who is a native Tanzanian, helped me to communicate more complicated sentences as we explained our research efforts in the region to every surprised cattle owner we met.
Learning about cattle and the local herding strategies was a fundamental component of the first field season of my Ph.D. research. I spent the summer investigating whether cows have retained any anti-predator behaviors from their wild relatives. Cows on the Maasai Steppe are regularly killed by hyenas, leopards, and lions. They are hunted at night when they are organized in bomas (traditional thornbush livestock corrals) or during the day when they are being grazed in the fields. It is those grazing landscapes that I am most interested in. Thanks to our collaboration with Dr. Bernard Kissui of the Tarangire Lion Project, we have records of depredation (the act of carnivores killing livestock) that date back to 2004. From that research I can tell you which villages have a high depredation risk and which villages have a low depredation risk. Thus, I have been studying the anti-predator behavior of cows from villages across these high and low risk classifications. If cows are responding to depredation risk by being more vigilant, then it means that they spend less time eating and their value to the local people declines. On the other hand, if cows do not exhibit any anti-predator behavior, then they may be sitting ducks for opportunistic carnivores. I would like to know if spatial depredation risk causes cows to change their behaviors. So I spent my days following Maasai herdsmen across the community grazing lands, observing cattle, and collecting data that will help us to better understand carnivore-livestock interactions and mitigate conflict. The applied dimensions of my research are instrumental given that conflict between people and carnivores is extremely high in this region. All of that being said: to most people my research looked just like I was herding cows. And although for three straight months I could be found alongside the herds from sunup to sundown, I have only just begun to learn what it actually means to be a herdsman in rural Tanzania.
First, the title of herdsman is a bit of a misnomer. Typically, those entrusted with the protection of the herds are actually young boys, ages six to 15 or so, and sometimes even younger. Armed with a stick and dressed in lengths of cloth called shukas and sandles made out of old tires, these boys lead their families’ most precious possessions to pasture. In search of nutritious grasses and fresh water, they may travel 20 km a day or more without any food or drink for themselves. Despite their young age and these extreme conditions, it’s exceptionally unusual to hear a herdsman complain. Herding isn’t just a job; it’s their entire way of life.
“Because,” he replied, matter-of-factly. “I have to herd these cows until I die.”
The boy was about ten years old.
Although this may seem like a cruel existence to those accustomed to life in the ‘West,’ the Maasai and other pastoralist tribes have been passing down this tradition to their children for thousands of years. And it doesn’t seem to stop these kids from being kids.
On that same day, I watched our herdsman catch butterflies with a shuka, practice hopping on one foot and jumping over thorn bushes, and crouch in the tall grass pretending to be a hyena. Later, when I was sweaty and exhausted from the long day, he was attempting to chase down a lone impala. Where he got the energy, I can’t say. But his imagination and verve had both Nancy and I laughing which helped to keep our spirits high despite the extreme heat and dust.
Although my experimental design focuses on studying the behavior of cows, some of the most interesting behavioral observations that Nancy and I made were not of the cows, but of the kids. Sometimes these observations were amusing like the playful games of our little “hyena” or the time I watched a herdsman find a piece of bent metal which he proceeded to wear on his head for the rest of the day. Other times these observations weighed heavier on my mind and were at once sobering and humbling. I will not quickly forget the day I saw a herder laying on his belly in the dirt of a dry river bed, his lower half sticking out of a hole that had been dug in the ground. Nearly upside down, he was slurping muddy water from the bottom. Knowing they will receive little milk and no water at home, these boys’ creativity manifests itself more as resourcefulness than imagination. Their strength and resilience was something I had never seen before.
At times like these I was glad when our presence could offer a small distraction from the hardships the herders experience daily. As much as we were captivated by them, they too loved watching us. Having never experienced much beyond their own grazing lands, their curiosity was amplified by many of our unfamiliar behaviors and belongings. They enjoyed watching us record data on our field tablet and I could easily bring a smile to their faces by letting them test out our stopwatch. A few cellphone “selfies” could make any rough day brighter. And above all else, the boys loved Nancy’s rangefinder. We used the rangefinder to calculate distance from our focal cow to the nearest vegetation that had enough structure (i.e., height and density) to potentially conceal the presence of an attacking carnivore. The herdsmen would shout and crowd around for a chance to look through the lens to determine the distance of objects.
Then there were times when we couldn’t converse with the herdsmen at all. If a child spoke Swahili we knew he had received some education. However, we met many young people who only spoke the Maasai language, Maa. This meant that they had never gone to school and likely never will.
It may seem strange, but I came to enjoy the silence of those particular days. My Swahili is very limited and although I usually could understand the subject of conversations, I wasn’t able keep up fast enough to participate much. But on days when there could be no spoken words between researchers and herders, we had to rely on other means of communication.
One chilly morning we met with a cattle owner, explained the purpose of our study, and asked for permission to follow his herd for the day. He agreed and sent us off with the herders, his son and nephew, who were probably eight and ten years old, and about 120 cows.
As we headed away from the boma we tried to get to know the boys we would be spending the next ten hours with.
“Jina lako ni nani? –What is your name?”
“Unaitwa nani? –What are you called?”
It was going to be a quiet day.
In the life of a herder however, quiet does not mean boring. Nancy and I came to think of each day as a new adventure. And that day was no exception. The further we got from the boma, the higher the elevation became, until we realized we were heading right up a mountain. The vegetation was incredibly thick and thorny, the ground littered with rough stones that threatened our footing with every step. It became almost impossible to keep our eyes on the cow we were observing and we were forced to concentrate on simply climbing safely to the top. The boys were adept at this—their tiny bodies darting nimbly under shrubs, their bare legs already hardened from years in the bush. We, however, seemed to snag ourselves on every thorn we encountered, sliding and falling on loose rocks. When the younger boy noticed my struggles, he came silently to my side and started to lead me through the brambles. He held branches back for me to pass through and if I chose a poor path, he took my hand and guided me on a safer course.
Although I was making far better progress under the direction of my new field guide, I still managed to snag my finger on a sharp plant. As he saw the blood drip from my finger, he gently took it in both of his hands and blew softly on the cut to sooth the pain.
I stood in awe of this young boy who understood nothing of my strange manners or my purpose for being there that day. Without any hesitation he had taken me under his little wing and attempted to assist and nurture me. He spoke compassion without any words at all.